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How to Balance the Two Families of Firefighting

*Originally published in Fire Chief Magizine*

The fire service and the families of firefighters are two separate systems, in a constant struggle for balance and well being. In these processes, both the fire department family and the job must coexist. However, the fire department family has a unique stress, because it must co-exist with the job in relative harmony to enable these two systems to function properly.

The fire department and the firefighter's family begin the process of adjustment as the firefighter enters the training academy. The family begins to cope with the new job as the department begins to adjust to it's newest firefighter. This initial adjustment period is almost always stressful and can set the stage for the family to adapt to the new lifestyle or create a turbulent situation between the department and the family. In some situations this turbulence can last years, creating a barrier between the two.

This barrier can create conflict within the firefighter as loyalty issues develop. Fire departments can benefit by doing everything in their power to assist both the firefighter and their family in adjusting to the job's demands. This attitude should extend beyond recruit training and be applied to firefighters at all stages of their careers. The concept of firefighter loyalty can be quite complicated. Unlike other occupations, many firefighters rapidly gain a deep connection to the job and the brothers and sisters at the fire station. The closer association between firefighters can create an extended family for many spouses and children in firefighter families. These close ties can add additional support people to the relationship.

In contrast, some families might have problems adapting to the loyal attitude the firefighter has toward the job. Families can become resentful about a wide range of topics, including additional training or extended shifts, but each family will have different needs with regard to adapting to the demands of the job. Fire department families need access to information that will assist them in processing or adjusting to these difficulties. This information can take the form of printed material, workshops or training sessions arranged by the department.

Often, a small amount of teaching by a trained mental health professional can go a long way. Firefighters and their spouses share many characteristics with their non-firefighter counterparts in that couples' emotional managment and relationship skills can vary. Fire department couples develop scripts or patterns of interaction much like do other couples. However, the fire department couple often will develop these scripts around job issues. For example, some firefighters will seek out their spouses to talk after a difficult shift. Other fire fighters might set up an unspoken rule against talking about the job. Some firefighters will wait and seek out anohter fire fighter rather than talking to a spouse.

The attitudes and reactions of spouses also will vary in each family. Each spouse and family member has a way of dealing with - or not dealing with - the stressors of the job. For example, some spouses would rather not think about the potential dangers of the job. Other spouses have learned specifics about the firefighters job to be more comfortable with their fears. No two couples or families are alike in these interaction patterns.

Spouses have asked new questions in the wake of the September 11 tragedies. The loss of hundreds of firefighters has contributed to a breakdown of coping methods that typically were used by some spouses of firefighters. In short, some spouses are more fearful about the firefighter's occupation. In the last few months, I've talked to many spouses with new concerns, specifically about higher numbers of firefighter casualties in future incidents. Some spouses are concerned about firefighters who respond to assist at incidents such as the ones in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. Some spouses of firefighters who responded to Ground Zero noted the usual methods of coping were ineffective.

As a result, many spouses and families now are faced with the prospect of re-adapting to the stress of the firefighter's occupation. Fire administrators generally should know that the spouses and families will rely more on information and services that the department can provide to remain healthy and cope with the stress of the job.

But how involved should a fire department get in the family matters of its firefighters? A wide range of ractions can exist about the department's potential involvement in family matters. These range from not wanting to get involved to providing resources for firefighters in these and other areas. I don't propose that fire departments get directly involved in the marital conflicts and family problems. My proposal involves the creation of a system that can assist firefighters and families in seeking information, assistance and professional help. Fire administrators can do this without directly getting involved in the conflict between firefighters and their families.

A fire department Stress Managment Unit is a way for fire administrators to provide much needed services to firefighters and their families. SMU firefighters are provided simply to help other firefighters. It's important to note that these peers don't provide counseling or pry into the firefighter's family issues.

What steps can a fire chief take to ensure that firefighters have access to the right information about topics such as stress managment, mental health and family wellness? It's important to note that general information on these and other mental topics doesn't always pertain to firefighting. Marital and family problems can significantly lower the productivity of a firefighter. Recent events highlight the importance of firefighters responding to incidents in a lower state of stress. Here are a few examples that illustrate how firefighters and fire service families are different from other non fire department families:

  • Every fire department family has its own script pertaining to how the couple or family copes and functions with the job and schedule. No two families are exactly alike. For example, some families will want to come to the fire station on holidays.

  • Spouses develop scripts in dealing with each other as a result of the job or job schedule. For example, a spouse might choose to avoid a particularly heated issue because it's convenient if the firefighter leaves for a long shift and part-time job. The time separation between spouses can be a luxury or a liability.

  • There is the possibility of a single parent phenomenon associated with fire service families. Specifically, a common arrangement involves the spous parenting alone during long periods of separation such as a 24 hour shift and part time job that follows. Some families have set up this script or arrangement as a way to cope with the schedule or the intense involvement that some firefighters display with the job.

  • Children may tend to act out more when the one parent is away at work. I've heard many stories from second generation firefighters about the things that they attempted to get away with while Dad was at the firehouse.

  • Spouses might view a firefighter's loyalty to the profession as problematic in the relationship. Mental health practitioners must understand this aspect to work with firefighters. Often, the firefighter perceives the therapist as unsypathetic toward job loyalty. A skilled marital therapist can assist with these issues if he or she is familiar with the fire department culture.

  • Like other occupations, spillover stress is a problem. Specifically, firefighters will bring stress from home to the job and vice versa. Fire department families tend to have unique ways to cope with firefighter stress. No way is the right way.

A therapist should be armed with this type of information before working with firefighters. The following examples illustrate how firefighters are different from other workers.

  • Firefighters learn coping skills on the job more than other workers. Fire chiefs can use this information to obtain information and enourage appropriate coping skills among firefighters.

  • Firefighters tend to view seeking mental health assistance more negatively than other workers. Organizations must set the example for fire fighters. It's critical for chief officers to set good examples and refute any ideas that seeking mental health assistance as a sign of weakness.

  • Firefighters tend to seek out other firefighters to deal with problems. The worker in the typical population typically does not share this characteristic. Firefighters need both formal and informal support systems.

The process of obtaining the right information to assist firefighters need not be an expensive undertaking. Many resources exist that are low or no cost. Stress Managment Unit members at Washington Township Fire Department research resource material as part of their regular duties and SMU firefighters have a certain amount of information on hand. For example, SMU members often will refer firefighters to the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation Website for information on cricial incident stress management (

The Stress Managment Unit is the division that addresses many of these needs for firefighters. The fire chief can rely on the SMU to continue to strive to meet the mental health and stress management needs. The formulation of an SMU to continue to strive managment needs of the department. Every fire chief should evaluate how the department meets these needs. The formulation of an SMU or components of one can be organized within a limited budget and in organizations of all sizes.

Every fire department can set up a peer support unit. This unit can consist of firefighters from neighboring departments as well as your own. Small departments can pool resources with other small departments. Mental health professionals should know how to work with this phenomenon rather than against it.

These suggestions are realistic and attainable and will yield huge divedends for your department. Now more than ever firefighters must respond to maintain a lower state of overall stress. This can make a difference for your department.

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